Fifty Shades of Trump: Valentine’s Day in the age of The Donald

Illustration by Andrew Khanian.

“The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.”

-Walter Benjamin

What a difference a year makes. Who would have thought in February 2016 that the following year Valentine’s Day would be celebrated as Western Civilization imploded? The rise of Donald Trump to become president of the U.S.A. has forced this country to look at itself in the mirror, and see the ugly truth staring back. In a sense Trump represents much of what V-Day celebrates: Shallowness, hypocrisy and unabashed consumerism. The nation is feeling the hangover, even in its jaded little heart.

It has been a yearly tradition now for me to chronicle in The Corsair the annual Valentine’s Day spending predictions by the National Retail Federation. Every year the number of demented spending on self-delusional trinkets goes up. In 2015 consumers spent $18 billion, in 2016 $19 billion. This year the NRF laments that spending is going back down to a still insane $18.2 billion. Meanwhile a recent study cited by Harvard University finds that one in five Americans feel lonely. This loneliness is no doubt made worse by the current social climate.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the current, anxiety-ridden state of the nation’s politics is affecting sales. The article quotes a New York-based marketing expert, Peter Schaub, as stating that  “The daily grind of negative news about the divided country and feuds in Washington (D.C.) has made shoppers skeptical.” Nervous couples are also quoted, shakily attesting that they might even forgo a romantic dinner because the times feel uncertain.

Cupid suddenly finds himself against the wall, arms spread, his venomous little bow and arrow snapped on the knee of a Trump immigration agent. Should we even try to save the little bastard? In our dystopian, pop-drugged civilization, it is the beautiful (and rich) who profit while the masses worship ideas of Trumpian copulation. This Valentine’s Day weekend the masses flocked to see “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to 2015’s lightweight S&M fairy tale “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Luckily sanity reigned and “The Lego Batman Movie,” a gloriously fun time, opened at #1, with “Fifty Shades” landing at #2. The continuing yarn of a clueless college girl signing a sex slave contract with a creepy buffed rich dude still raked in $46 million.

This writer confesses to enjoying lurid melodrama and kinky thrillers like “Basic Instinct,” but the success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” exposes something quite telling about the American psyche. It’s almost a mirror reflection of the 2016 election: America, always pretending to be good and kind, signed an electoral contract with a billionaire promising rich rewards while boasting about his sexual prowess. He has the nation tied with his kink ropes, and smacks us every day with the whip. We have descended to such a level of shallowness and objectification that we now have the president we always deserved. We are living in fifty shades of Donald Trump. And somehow the citizens of this fifty shades republic still want to spend- according to NRF- $136.57 per person, while pretending to celebrate love and romance?

There is a lot of chatter about “resistance” to the current regime and what it represents. But maybe one important, personal form of resistance to this darkening age is to rediscover just what real love is. I don’t write this as some gooey-eyed romantic. I am not proposing you go out and carry out the ultra-dangerous ritual of seeking a relationship. But the whole Trump saga is forcing us as a society to really look at each other, and not just on Tinder.

Sometimes it takes a dire situation to open our eyes. Like someone who’s dated one too many jerks, maybe it is the Trump presidency that will make Americans rediscover true solidarity. The protests that erupted over the recent Muslim travel ban were a welcome expression of such solidarity and humaneness from sectors of the population. Disconnected and atomized by social media and technology, the population suddenly finds itself rattled by a growing darkness in their government. Suddenly startled faces look up from the iPhones, realizing the world is about to blow up, and that living at 100 miles per hour, obsessed with someday living like Trump, makes no sense at all.

Earlier this month, Harvard professor Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, spoke at the first ever Global Dialogue on Happiness. I’m usually immune to events with such corny names, but in this case Waldinger presented an interesting thesis. According to Reuters, Waldinger told his audience that “One of the things that we found is that relationships don’t have to be smooth. People need someone who they believe they can count on when things get hard.” He wasn’t referring to romantic relationships either, but to close families and friendships.

Waldinger also warned about the kind of false happiness we inject ourselves with through social media- posting false perceptions of lives that seem to be in perpetual party mode. It’s almost a reality fed by rituals like Valentine’s Day, where thousands spend millions on plastic notions of affection. There’s nothing wrong with having fun with it and doing something nice for your “significant” other- although my wallet is safe- but now more than ever, what should matter is truly caring for others. Ask a friend if they are doing ok, and be a real friend, which can be hard when you’re young and it’s so easy to fall in love with someone close.

It is the breakdown of the false and invisible borders and boundaries between us that produces genuine affection, and if you want to use the term, love. This seems a bit boring I am sure, for college-age readers, but in the long term it’s good for us. This is not the time to be left feeling alone in a society quickly going off the rails.

Even if you haven’t joined the street marches, airport protests or other vocal expressions against Trump, you can simply be a radical by being unselfish in a selfish era. To be a real friend, to give oneself in terms of time out of genuine affection, dismissive of appearances and backgrounds, is as tender as the touch of a hand, and as radical as a Molotov cocktail. And that is worth much more than roses that will wither in this uncertain time, when the brightest reds seem to take on the darker shade of spilled blood.